Here to return to
A FLYCATCHER AND A SPARROW
I BELIEVE I have seen two of the oddest birds in Texas — the road-runner and the scissor-tailed flycatcher. The first was mentioned some time ago in these letters; the second I have but lately met with. When I was in San Antonio in January, he was absent for the winter. He would return, I was informed, shortly after the middle of March, and I have kept it fast in mind that I must stop here on my way home and make his acquaintance.
I knew he was odd, but he has turned out to be odder even than I supposed. Other places, other birds, as a matter of course, but surely this one, to use Emerson’s word, is the “otherest.” When I saw him first, in San Pedro Park (everything is saintly in the Southwest), I thought for an instant that I was looking at a bird which had seized a long string, or a strip of cloth, and was flying away with it to his nest. Seen more fully, he looked, I said to myself, like a Japanese kite, or some other outlandish plaything. Even now, when he has been in sight pretty constantly for five or six days, I can hardly say that he looks like a bird to me. His enormously long tail feathers are so fantastic, so almost grotesque! They render him a kind of monstrosity. One feels as if he had been made, not born; and some Oriental must have been the maker.
Yet if ever a bird was alive, he is. His spirits are effervescent and apparently inexhaustible. Few birds are noisier or more continually on the move. When six or eight scissor-tails meet for consultation in one small tree, even though it be in a cemetery, there are “great doings,” as the country phrase is. What the disturbance is all about, it is beyond me to tell, but it seems a reasonable assumption that it has to do somehow with questions of love and marriage. So far as I have noticed, such sessions do not last long. In the nature of things they cannot. The hubbub increases, the discussion, whatever its subject, waxes more and more animated, and then, of a sudden, the assembly breaks up (I was going to say explodes), and away fly the birds (and the birds’ tails), every one still contending for the last word.
But there is no need of six or eight to set the pot bubbling. Two are a plenty; and indeed I suspect that a single bird would have it out with himself rather than forego for an hour or two the excitement of a shindy. In temperament the scissor-tail, as well as I can determine, is own brother to the kingbird. As I said, he is brimming over with spirits. If he gave them no vent he would burst.
So after a few minutes of quietness, the calm that precedes the storm, he darts into the air, with vehement, mad gyrations, opening and shutting his tail feathers spasmodically, and uttering loud cries of one sort and another. Perhaps he flies straight upward, or as nearly so as possible (this is one of the kingbird’s tricks), and with tail outspread comes down headfirst like an arrow. He is like a creature full of wine, or like one beside himself. What he does, he has to do. There is no holding him in.
Sometimes, when there are two in the air together, and for anything I know at other times, — I tell what I have seen, — they utter most curious, hollow, throbbing, booming noises, such as one would never attribute to any bird of the flycatcher family. They utter them, I say, but I mean only that they make them. How they do it, whether with the throat, the wings, or the tail, is something I have yet to discover. The only book I have at hand makes no mention of such noises, and I was greatly taken aback when I heard them.
As the reader perceives, I am dealing in first impressions. They are all I have. Most of the scissor-tail’s tricks and manners, indeed, I have yet to witness. I have not seen him chase a crow, for instance, or a raven (he would have to travel a hundred miles, I suspect, to find either the one or the other), but give him half a chance, and I am sure he would do it. One thing I have seen him do: I have seen him fly before an English sparrow. The action seemed unworthy of him, but I dare say he did not so regard it. Perhaps it was all a joke. But apparently no bird considers it a disgrace to be put to rout by a smaller one. The shameful thing is to be afraid of one that is larger than yourself. This is not the human way of looking at such matters; but perhaps that does not prove it a false way. I seem to see that much might be said in defense of it.
It is surprising how common the scissor-tail is, and more surprising yet that nobody seems to notice him. I should have thought that all the passers-by would be stopping to stare at so half-absurd a prodigy. But when he performs his craziest evolutions here in the Alamo Plaza, in the very heart of the city, nobody appears to mind him. The truth is that to these people — to most of them, at least — he is an old story, while to me he is like a bird invented last week. Wherever you notice men, you will perceive that it is not the wonderful that attracts their attention, but the novel and the out-of-the-way. The moon and the stars they are used to, and quite properly look upon with indifference; but let a neighbor’s hencoop catch fire, and they cannot run fast enough to behold the spectacle.
Another and better thing I have accomplished during my present brief stay in San Antonio: I have heard and seen the Cassin sparrow. A Washington ornithologist, familiar with this Southwestern country, learning that I was on my way thither, wrote to me in January: “On no account return without hearing the Cassin sparrow.” To confess the truth, I had almost forgotten the injunction, emphatic as it was; but a few mornings ago, on my way back to the terminus of the street-car line after a jaunt into some old pecan woods, five or six miles out of the city, I stopped short at the sound of a few simple bird notes. What a gracious tune! And as novel as it was gracious! I had never heard the like: a long trill or shake, pitched at the top of the scale, and then, after a rest, a phrase of five notes in the sweetest of sparrow voices, ending with the truest and most unexpected of musical intervals. For mnemonic purposes, as my custom is (useful to me, if to no one else), I at once put words to the tune: “She” (this for the long trill), “pretty, pretty she.”
The birds were in some scattered mesquite bushes (very bright now, in their new yellow-green leafage), and I hastened to get through the fence and make up to them. They proved to be very small, and distressingly deficient in marks or “characters,” but I took such note of them as I could, in a poor light. The main thing, for the time being, was the song. That prolonged opening note, with its sound of an indrawn whistle, ought to be the work of a Pucæa, I told myself, remembering the Florida representative of that genus, and the singers should therefore be Cassin sparrows.
The next morning, having refreshed my memory by a reading of the handbook, I took the car immediately after breakfast for another visit to the place. This, I should have said, was in the rear grounds of an asylum for the insane. It was Sunday morning, and as I crawled through the fence and took up my position among the mesquites, I presently found myself under fire from the windows and balconies. The distance was too great for me to understand what was said, but there was no doubt that the inmates of the institution regarded me as a queer one. However, I believed in my own sanity (as things go in this world), and did not propose to be hindered. The birds were there, and that was enough.
And now, to my intense satisfaction, I found that they were doing just what the handbook described: springing into the air for a few feet, after the manner of long-billed marsh wrens, and with fluttering wings dropping slowly back to the perch, uttering their sweet, “She, pretty, pretty she,” as they descended. I secured somewhat fuller observations of their plumage, also, and became morally certain — which means something less than scientifically certain, though really, taking Mr. Attwater’s list of the birds of San Antonio as a guide, there is nothing else they can be — that the singers were Cassin sparrows.1
And glad I am to have heard them. I cannot speak for others; judgment in such matters must always be largely a question of personal taste; but for myself I have heard few bird songs that satisfy me so well; so quaint and original, yet so true and simple. San Antonio mockingbirds are numberless, and their performances are wonderful; I think I should never tire of them; but somehow those six quiet notes of the sparrow seem to go deeper home.__________________
1 And so they were, on the testimony of the Washington ornithologist above quoted, who knows both bird and song.